Regis Prograis reignited his career this Saturday as he stepped into the ring against Jose Zepeda, fighting for the vacant WBC 140lb title, and put in a beautiful performance to break down and ultimately stop his tough and skilled opponent. Much like Zurdo Ramirez against Bivol a few weeks ago, Zepeda found himself forced into distances he wasn’t comfortable with, and unable to throw shots to clear some space without taking major damage in return. Let’s take a look at how Prograis did it.
Prograis has a style that you don’t see every day. That was probably a big part of Zepeda’s problem: it’s just difficult to prepare for such a unique set of skills. He does a few things that in most other fighters would be considered too risky, or render him innefectual, but does them in a manner that instead make them features of his game rather than weaknesses. It took him a while to get these into play- and more on the smart planning that took later- but once he did Zepeda found it very difficult to answer.
The first of these features is the speed at which he’s capable of closing distance. For most fighters, such a rapid approach would only be achieved by leaping in- an uncontrolled approach, sometimes with both feet off the ground and in any case with limited ability to adjust or stop once started. Those moments also make it very hard to properly protect your chin or take sting off any intercepting shots. It’s the kind of move that made Amir Khan, for example, very vulnerable. Prograis, though, can close in a flash without losing control or exposing himself to that danger, a skill evidenced by the fact that he spent 11 rounds doing it here against a fighter whose entire gameplan revolves around intercepting fighters coming in, and got caught cleanly maybe twice.
There’s a few things that come together to achieve this. The first to look at- as ever in boxing- is the feet, in this case in particular the positioning of his lead foot before he makes his move. Both fighters here were southpaws, so the oft-talked about outside-foot position that’s often part of a southpaw’s arsenal wasn’t available. Instead, he’d look to keep his foot somewhere on the center line of Zepeda’s stance, able to slip outside or in of his opponent’s jab. He’d use foot feints and small movements to take the initial position without Zepeda being exactly sure of where he was going, so that final explosive approach would often only need to be a weight shift and maybe a small slide-step to bring himself in rather than a full jump in. Letting your front foot get too far ahead is also not without risk- too wide a stance can leave a fighter stuck with limited movement options- but he’s very careful not to do that, rather turning a little as he moves his back foot so he’s staying off the dangerous center line and making his opponent turn to adjust. Zepeda isn’t particularly good moving at angles, so that was a big feature here.
There is a second part to all that though: another common feature of such fast approaches is that the move may be fast, but once the fighter’s landed it takes a second to set themselves properly to be able to move again (particularly if they’re throwing punches at the same time - the brain can only focus on so much). Zepeda’s specialty is taking advantage of exactly that, tempting opponents to come in then sliding back to make them fall short and clipping them with a hard left as they readjust. He really found that hard here, though, because Prograis- because he’s always so balanced- is always ready to push forward with another step if his first move falls short. There were times in this fight where he’d whiff with really big shots, another dangerous game, but he’d immediately move forward to put himself right on Zepeda’s chest, from where he’d recover his head position and then reset.
He supports this with his excellent proactive head movement. This achieves two things: the first is the obvious aim that if your head isn’t still and rarely on the center line, it’s much harder for opponents to track it and hit it. But, as mentioned above, he also uses it to manipulate distance- he doesn’t just slip side to side but back and forward, and often he’ll lean back slightly initially then shift in as he gets close. Controlling a weight shift is much easier than controlling a leap, especially with a fighter with as free a movement as Prograis has- some fighters stick to a few repeated positions, but Prograis has the balance and flexibility to really put his head anywhere safely. That ties back to his footwork, too, because he keeps such a consistently stable base with his feet that he simply has less areas than most where a weight shift will off-balance him, even while he’s moving.
Both those things- head movement and the stable feet- also work together to create the second aspect of his game that Zepeda found really difficult: that is, the ability to throw shots from strange, out-there angles and yet still generate power. Seeing a fighter slip, as an example, out to the right and throw a shot with his left that comes round from that side isn’t too unusual, but they’re usually clipping or cuffing shots. Prograis can do it and still generate real, hurtful pop on his punches. This is a problem for any opponent, but Zepeda found it particularly difficult because he is quite straight-lined. What that meant in this instance is that shots coming along his line of forward-and-back balance can be moved with to take the sting off, but shots coming across it at an angle hurt far more. Boxing stances and movements are usually better at mitigating this issue than typically seen in MMA (mostly because there’s less other things to consider), and that’s true of Zepeda for whom it’s not usually a gamebreaking problem. Prograis, though, can split a fighter’s attention in both directions in a way that just makes it far harder to anticipate the shot, and Zepeda struggled to deal with it, especially with shots coming from positions that no sparring partner is likely to have been able to throw useful shots from.
Interestingly, the biggest moments of danger came just after Zepeda had his own successes. There were a few times when he did catch Prograis with something that made him back off - and on one occasion definitely seemed to hurt him- but every time he stepped in to follow up, he found himself eating hard shots himself. To some extent that stands to reason, but few fighters have as much composure in those moments as Prograis does, making exchanging with him a really tough prospect.
As alluded to in the intro though, there was more to the performance than just being able to do unusual things well. Zepeda is after all a world class fighter in his own right, and the first two rounds or so did see him having success that Prograis had to work out how to foil. The first key in that was the jab. Prograis sets up a huge amount of his game with his, but Zepeda is also an expert with that punch and has enough of a length advantage that, initially, imposing it was difficult. His plan, then, became to take make throwing that punch uncomfortable for Zepeda. rather than going jab-for-jab, in the second and third rounds he’d focus first on letting him throw it, using his head movement to slip it, then coming over it with heavy chopping left hands (mostly: sometimes it’d be a right for variation). Zepeda became hesistant to lead with it, and that was when Rougarou started throwing his out and took over the positioning. He took note of the punch though- those chopping, almost downward lefts became a regular feature in the fight even when he didn’t need to throw them, tactically speaking, because Zepeda’s stance proved unable to deal with them.
He did, on a couple of occasions, get a bit too cocky with it- even with all the control in the world, he is capable of making a mistake with the timing and getting caught, and a run-in shot was the cause of his biggest moment of danger. In the tenth round he aimed to run another one in but Zepeda anticipated it, caught him as he started to move, and clearly hurt him quite solidly. Once again though, Prograis showed his composure, took a safe position low under anything Zepeda would throw, then countered with his own little uppercut, that turned the tables. It wasn’t the end of the fight- the tenth round was the most back-and-forth of the fight, with Zepeda continuing to try to capitalise and Prograis not quite recovering till the round break- but it was the beginning of the end, and in round eleven another of those downward chopping lefts dazed Zepeda and sent him reeling to the ropes, where Prograis finished him off.
All that is still, of course, somewhat of a simplification: it was a great performance full of detail. and we could be here all day breaking it down. Those were the building blocks though, and any performance of Prograis’ is likely to built in one way or another on those somewhat unusual fundamentals.
At 33, neither fighter is exactly a fresh face, but at the same time neither has had the kind of rugged, incessantly warring career that leads to early deterioration, so both should be around at world level for a bit. Prograis, obviously, has the title now and his next moves will be defined by that. It’s an important opportunity for him because he isn’t with a big promoter so he’ll need the leverage- with that in mind, he’ll almost certainly be fighting Jose Ramirez next. Ramirez was supposed to have fought Zepeda here, but pulled out to focus on his wedding. He has a standing order to be the mandatory challenger for the winner here, and while the WBC has been known to play games with mandatories in the past, it’s not that likely when Ramirez is the one with the promotional power of Top Rank on his side. That’s an excellent fight, and if Prograis wins he’ll be in a great position in one of the best divisions in the sport.
Zepeda, naturally, has to regroup again. He can’t spend too long about it, but the depth of the division is such that he should be able to take some recovery time without fighting no-hopers and making himself irrelevant, and we could well see him challenging for another title before too long. This fight did show his limitations, but he’s still a fighter with enough skill and power to be dangerous to anyone.